The Conversation: reggae joins Unesco’s list

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Bob Marley was one of the reggae artists cited in Unesco’s candidacy.

When Unesco declared that Jamaican reggae music had been added to its list of cultural products considered worthy of recognition, this reflected the role of reggae as an important social and political phenomenon.

Jamaica’s candidacy for the committee mentioned a number of artists, from Bob Marley and Peter Tosh to Chronixx and the Zinc Fence Band.

Some observers may wonder if such musicians are reason enough to include reggae on this prestigious list.

But reggae is much more important than its musicians. Not only is social commentary “an integral part of music,” claims the app, but reggae has also made a “significant contribution to international discourse on issues of injustice, resistance, love and humanity.” .

Reggae “provided a voice to maligned, unemployed and at-risk groups and provided a vehicle for social commentary and expression where no other outlet existed or was offered”.

He also “provided a way to praise and communicate with God.”

Deep roots
Culturally, politically, religiously and musically, reggae has done a lot of work. Born in the back streets of Kingston in the 1950s, he is proudly Jamaican. Raised in difficult circumstances, he has matured into friendly and generous music that travels well and warmly embraces other cultures and music.

Hybridization is part of the genetic makeup of reggae. Its DNA goes back to West Africa and the world of popular music. It came about through mento (a form of Jamaican folk music), ska and stable rock, absorbing Caribbean influences (especially calypso), rhythm and blues, rock and jazz.

As reggae adopted other styles and musical ideas, it influenced them and spawned new subgenres.

The innovative recording techniques of Jamaican producers such as King Tubby, Lee “Scratch” Perry and Bunny Lee – what has come to be known as “dub reggae” – have inspired generations of artists and producers around the world .

Resistance policy
But reggae has not forgotten its roots. Not only does it comment on current political events and social issues, but it also gives a multi-layered introduction to the history, religion, and culture of what music historian Paul Gilroy has called “the Black Atlantic .

A key moment in Jamaican political history (as well as reggae history) occurred on April 22, 1978 during the One Love Concert hosted by Bob Marley at the National Stadium in Kingston.

Marley called his bitter political rivals Michael Manley and Edward Seaga onto the stage and persuaded them to join hands. Few other people could have done this. While the concert did not end the unrest in Jamaica, it showed the importance of reggae as a political and cultural force.

Rastafarian
Reggae is inextricably linked with the Rastafarian religion, which emerged as a direct response to the oppression within Jamaican colonial society.

Often expressing the ideas of Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey, considered a prophet, Rasta musicians such as Marley and Burning Spear developed roots reggae as a vehicle for their religio-political messages.

Although some musicians are not committed Rastafarians, they generally identify with the ideas and culture of the movement.

Many wear dreadlocks, consider smoking “weed” (cannabis) a sacrament, and refer to the religio-political dualism of Zion and Babylon (the social systems of the righteous and the unjust). Hope is often expressed for a better world after Armageddon and the fall of Babylon.

These biblical ideas are also creatively applied to a range of political issues, from local injustices to climate change and the nuclear arms race.

After fierce clashes with the police in the 1940s and 1950s, former Rastafarians – especially Mortimer Planno – appealed to Jamaican academics to study Rastafarian in order to increase popular understanding and tolerance.

And in 1960, researchers MG Smith, Roy Augier, and Rex Nettleford published Report on the Rastafarian Movement in Kingston, Jamaica.

For Rastas, the destruction of Babylon is less a violent overthrow of oppressive social structures than a conversion to new ways of thinking.

From the start, it was “rebellious music”, a powerful political tool for peaceful resistance to oppression.

International reggae
The power of reggae as an educational and inspiring force became evident soon after arriving in Britain. In 1976 he was central to the founding of the Rock Against Racism campaign and by the late 1970s reggae, dub, ska and Rastafarian terminology were informing punk culture as part of a “dread culture”. of resistance ”emerging.

For example, in 1979, the year of the Southall race riots, in which Kiwi teacher Blair Peach was killed, British punk group The Ruts released their dub reggae-influenced single. Jah’s War, to which they sang, “the air was charged with an odor of oppression”. They later achieved chart success with The burning of Babylon.

At the same time, Jamaicans who moved to Britain as a child, like Linton Kwesi Johnson, used a creative blend of poetry and reggae to comment on the injustices they faced.

For these political, religious and cultural reasons, as much as for music, Unesco was right to finally give reggae the recognition it deserves.

Christopher Partridge is Professor of Religious Studies at Lancaster University.

– The conversation


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